Disarming the Cliché Police

For most of my life the way I viewed the writing process was destructive to my ambitions. To write freely and learn from my mistakes, I had to jettison beliefs that had blocked me and made me dread writing.

One attitude that fortified my block for many years was a terrible fear of bring trite. To call my work trite was the ultimate weapon of my inner critic; it shut me down completely.

I thought that if a cliché appeared in my work, even in a rough draft, it must mean I was a human cliché myself: a dull, unimaginative, and lazy thinker. So many books I had read about writing denounced cliché users as lazy; in general the authors condemned not just expressions like “dead as a doornail,” “fit as a fiddle,” or “It was a dark and stormy night,” but almost universal real-life situations like a cheating spouse or even themes like good versus evil.

Beyond the injunction to always be fresh and original, and to avoid clichés at all costs, there was an implied moral judgment about triteness, a tone of scolding, a threat of shame, and usually a dire warning about how editors had no tolerance for lazy thinkers, and how if they found out you were one, they would primly purse their lips and point you toward the door.

During one period when I was painfully blocked and severely depressed, my fears of triteness reduced me to a plodding place. Writing hurt. Everything seemed dull and derivative. Every moment felt self-conscious, until on one particularly torturous afternoon of writing, I had a kind of cathartic meltdown. It was wonderful and terrible. Staring at my limp prose,I had beenon the verge of giving up on writing for good; instead, I rebelled. Not against writing but against the legions of writing authorities whose advice I had taken so seriously all my life.At that moment I no longer felt hurt or depressed or ashamed. I was angry. I was incensed that writing was no longer what it once had been when I had enjoyed it as a kid. I remembered thatat one time, writing had been more like chocolate chip cookies than boiled cabbage. I had loved writing once. What had happened? Where had all the fun gone?

After a lot of thought, I decided that, from that day on, I would write whatever and however I pleased. I missed the way I had enjoyed writing before I had learned that writing was all about pleasing editors or catering to what I imagined readers wanted. I went to work on taming my internal critic. One of my first acts was to defund the “police department” in my head that was charged with punishing triteness.

Though I had no love for clichés, flinging them around with reckless abandon like confetti seemed like fun. It was also a powerful place to begin my rebellion against the Writing Authorities since clichés seemed more forbidden to writers than hard porn. I decided that if a night was dark and stormy I was damn well going to say so, in those very terms, and maybe I would show the whole snooty cliché-hating literary world that a book about dark and stormy nights could sell like gangbusters and hotcakes, too. (Fun facts, by the way: The first sentence of the best-selling children’s classic A Wrinkle in Time is “It was a dark and stormy night.” And “dead as a doornail” was used by Charles Dickens in A Christmas Carol.)

My writing became fun again once I started back focusing on what I wanted to create and not what I wanted to avoid. One of the biggest sources of block, something that leeches the fun out of writing more than anything else, is the belief that writing well is largely about avoiding mistakes that will identify you as an amateur. This kind of self-consciousness strangles creative freedom.

However, I still want to write fresh, interesting content. I want to write with my own voice and style. I want to write stories I have never seen written. I want to write observations I have never seen printed. How can I do that without making a self-conscious effort to avoid clichés or berating myself whenever I catch myself using one?

My solution has been to think of clichés in my rough drafts as a kind of useful shorthand for bigger ideas. Art contains an analogy I like. The book Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain makes the point that as children we learn to draw symbols that represent the world around us: a triangle for the roof of a house or a circle for a human face, for example.  As gross oversimplifications, these symbols barely resemble reality, but the more they are repeated, the more true-to-life they seem.

In writing I do something similar. In rough drafts I find myself using certain phrases again and again to represent certain emotions, behaviors or expressions. I often write, “He furrowed his forehead” to represent puzzlement; “She sighed” to represent resignation; She shrugged” to represent indifference; or “His mouth went dry” to represent anxiety. They are commonly used phrases that quickly signify something I want to say without my having to imagine it too deeply. Sighing and shrugging are so basic, they may not be considered clichés exactly, but like clichés they are repeated again and again, and no depth of thought is required.

Such verbal tags, garnered through a lifelong habit of reading, simplify the world — and writing — for me. However, you can only have your characters shrug, sigh, or furrow their foreheads so many times without them becoming tedious, and creating a life-like character from these shallow tags alone is improbable.

As I write, I know that these repetitive tags are inadequate for a finished work of fiction. But for my rough drafts they are fine; there, I am only trying to get down the broad strokes. In a rough draft, I only want to know what happens; I can save the detail work — the how and the why — for later. In other words, I know that my roof of my story house is probably not a perfect triangle, but my sketch of a simple shape lets me know the roof is meant to be there; I can go back later and examine how the roof appears from different angles, from above or below. By changing points of view, by studying my “roof” as it really is, with its missing shingles and flaking paint, I can make it fresh and realistic in my final “drawing.” But my simple “triangle” gives me a place to start.

Similarly, I can return to my rough draft and ask, “What is my character actually feeling when he sighs? Does he really sigh? Is he even the sort who would sigh or does he just clam up under stress? If he sighs, does he also look off into the middle distance and cross his eyes? Does he sit and play with the strings on his jacket? Or does he start to sigh, get embarrassed, and just cough instead?”

I am constantly working to get better at creating fictional characters by observing real people and writing down what I see. Lately I have been describing photographs of politicians on the notepad of my phone. I ask, do I trust the way they look? Why or why not? What is their emotional expression? Are they angry? If they look angry, what is it exactly that makes them look angry? Do they appear arrogant? Benign? Jovial? Dishonest? How so? Usually I am surprised by my answers — and that is a good sign.

As a writer I need my shorthand, which sometimes takes the form of clichés, but in the end I also need the ability to look beyond it, to explore the complex nature beyond my symbols.   Pre-labeled verbal packages may be convenient but they are not enough. The illusion of life behind the words must seem dynamic and real. Writers, like artists, must admit, in the end, that most roofs are not perfect triangles and that faces are all different shapes and sizes.

However, seeing beyond the shorthand is a much broader and interesting endeavor than just avoiding clichés. Clichés are harmless in themselves; they will not necessarily ruin a work of fiction as Charles Dickens and Madeline L’Engle have demonstrated. The real challenge of a writer is a positive one and it is a lifelong challenge: to see the world as it is rather than how it is supposed to be.  Seeing beyond symbols is more about letting go of rigid ways of thinking and allowing the full intricacy of nature to emerge without fleeing from it.

This is so hard for me that when writing a rough draft, I try not to worry about it at all; the point of a rough draft is just to get something, anything, down. During my first effort, I think of my clichés or pet phrases such as “she sighed,” “his mouth went dry,” “his palms were sweating,”  or “he furrowed his forehead” as mere placeholders. If I decide not to keep them, then they can at least serve as markers for fuller thoughts I might want to go back and develop later.

The injunction to avoid clichés is the wrong formulation of the problem writers face. No sane writer writes expressly for the purpose of avoiding something. A writer could avoid clichés most easily by not writing at all. The problem is much more exciting. We write to create something new, intriguing, and ideally honest. The way to do that is not by avoiding common figures of speech, themes, or genre tropes, but by learning to see beyond them, to grasp the true beauty, complexity, and irony of nature without fleeing to the stagnant comfort of the familiar.

4 thoughts on “Disarming the Cliché Police

  1. “However, you can only have your characters shrug, sigh, or furrow their foreheads so many times without them becoming tedious,”–Yes, so true. I loved reading this post, because this is something I struggle with. I find my character’s temples throb a lot or their jaws twitch. Like you, I put these in for eases of conveying what I want to say, knowing that in later drafts I need to substitute some of them. But finding a substitute is often tricky for me. I’m a better storyteller than I am a creative and poetic writer, so it’s something I must continuously work at.

    • I’m so glad you enjoyed the post Carrie! But to your credit, I would never know from reading your novels that finding alternatives to the overused tags would be a problem you struggle with. All of your characters behave in a very natural and life-like way so that I feel like I know them. Whatever you are doing it works very well. Keep doing it!! 🙂

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